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Katie Vann

MA History of Design, 2015–17

Why did you decide to study at the RCA?

A huge part of it was because it’s a two-year Programme and that one year is solely dedicated to a personal research project that results in a 25,000-word dissertation. I felt it would almost be a tester year for doing a PhD – trying out solitary research.

The Programme being split with the V&A is a really amazing resource and provides the opportunity to work on projects in the museum, learn from curators and get to know collections. If you want to work with material culture and artefacts, it’s ideal. It’s also really rare to do a history of design course in a school with actual makers. Normally those departments are disconnected, but here it feels a lot more vibrant. The academic staff and the whole Programme is a lot more engaged with practice.

What were you doing before you started studying here? 

My BA was in Archaeology and Anthropology – but I mainly studied social anthropology. I wanted to work and travel so did a lot of short-term work and a few internships. I worked in an art gallery in Malaysia and for an NGO in France but I really missed education.

Can you describe what it’s like studying at the RCA? 

The first year is very different to the second year. In the first year you have morning lectures or seminars, these are normally focused around three to five texts everyone has been given to read. They will start with a brief talk from the academic, lecturer or curator who is leading the session, followed by a discussion about how the texts relate to the material culture of a specific topic. 

The second year is spent working on your dissertation project. For me this involved five months working in archives compiling data from nineteenth-century sources, and then time working in the British Library or National Art Library at the V&A with secondary texts.

What have you found to be the main differences between your expectation of studying at the RCA and the reality?

There have been lots of opportunities for collaboration across disciplines, which wasn’t expected. We’ve worked with IED students on a project about bio design and there’s a lot of room for creativity and group work.

What have you found most rewarding about your time at the RCA?

Working in a college with makers has changed my perspective, it gives you the feeling that your work is more current. There is something to be said for doing something historical but relating it back to the present, and having the chance to see what people are making.

How has your thinking developed while you have been at the RCA?

Coming from a social anthropology background my main methodology was fieldwork. I still think that is valuable, but a key difference has been learning to look at materials, objects, and their production. That’s given me a huge new insight into analysing material culture and artefacts, or even history in general. That’s the core of the History of Design Programme for me.

What do you intend to do after you graduate? 

I would like to do a PhD – I’m currently looking at institutions I want to work with. I’m going to take a year or two out first to work. Ideally I would like to do academic research within an academic research institute.

Do you have any advice for students thinking of applying?

You don’t need to worry about having a dissertation topic lined up when you apply. Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t come from an art history background – the majority of the group studied the topic in some capacity, but you don’t need that experience. A lot of self-discipline is key. In the second year you only have one day a week that is scheduled. You have to keep on top of your time, be incredibly organised when managing resources and have good time-management.

"Working in a college with makers has changed my perspective, it gives you the feeling that your work is more current"
Katie Vann
Katie Vann